Sounding the alarm on an unnecessary and unfeeling expulsion

“Home is the nicest word there is,” wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder. We used to nestle with our children when they were small — all of us secure in our own home — and read about her little house on the prairie or her little house in the big woods.

Most of us look to our homes for more than just a roof over our heads. Home supplies us not only with the physical requirements of survival, the base of Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. Next on his hierarchy is safety, and a home gives us that, too.

But a home gives us more still. It gives us a sense of place, and can help define who we are and how we relate to the world at large.

That’s why we reacted first with disbelief, then with horror, and finally with anger when we learned last week about two Buddhists being forced from their town-owned home, a retreat house at Switzkill Farm.

The town of Berne had purchased the 350-acre property three-and-a-half years ago from Buddhists who had a center there. One of the Buddhists, Diane Poole, had lived there and continued to lease a room from the town when the property was sold.

She is in her sixties and was recalled fondly last week at a meeting of the Switzkill Farm Board. One person remembered how she gathered apples from the orchard on the property to make cider. “Everybody loved Diane,” she said.

Another said, “She had a deep connection to the place.” He told a story of how Poole had warned him to watch out for a grouse while brush hogging the fields because, she said, “He lives here.”

Diane Poole was more sensitive and caring about a grouse’s home than the town was about hers.

On Feb. 27, with temperatures, below freezing, the two tenants were given just a few hours to leave their homes.

Why?

Because the fire alarm and sprinkler systems weren’t working.

Our Hilltown reporter H. Rose Schneier made dozens of calls last week to piece together the story about the Buddhists’ forced departure. It turns out those alarm and sprinkler systems hadn’t been working for a long while. If the retreat house was dangerous to live in, the town shouldn’t have been renting it out in the first place.

A model law from the New York State Department of State indicates that ordering an occupant to vacate the premises can be an appropriate response to a code violation, and the 2015 International Property Maintenance Code states that, if there is “imminent danger” of the structure collapsing, there is danger due to fumes or explosives, or defective equipment, the code enforcement officer is authorized to order the occupants to vacate.

That is perfectly reasonable. If the two tenants were in imminent danger, of course they should be told to leave their home. But the retreat house — seven rooms with two shared bathrooms — was not about to collapse; there were no toxic fumes, no explosives.

The town, as a landlord, has the responsibility to make sure the building safe. Schneider found out there had been no regular inspections.

There should be. We urge Berne to institute a policy where all of its buildings are inspected yearly. It’s important to keep workers as well as tenants safe.

We like the way the city of Albany handles similar situations. Robert Magee, who directs the city’s regulatory compliance, told Schneider, that, if there were violations such as at Switzkill Farm, the city building inspectors typically put the building on a fire-safety watch and attempt to remediate the problem in a matter of hours.

If the problem can’t be resolved quickly, a notice to vacate may be issued. Magee said that the city tries to inform tenants of the differences between this declaration and an eviction, and that they still have rights to the building.

“We don’t ever physically remove a person from the property,” he said.

The city’s building department also will offer housing for tenants through the Red Cross or the Homeless and Travelers’ Aid Society, said Magee.

Nothing was offered to the Switzkill Farm residents. The fire-safety systems could have been fixed while the tenants continued to live there. At the very least, the tenants could have been given more than a few hours’ warning.

“The woman was in tears; she was hysterical,” Kevin Crosier told us of Poole. Crosier had been supervisor when the town bought Switzkill Farm; he was beaten by Sean Lyons in November’s supervisor election.

Two Republicans were elected to the formerly all-Democratic board. One of the issues Republicans had seized on was criticism of the town’s purchase of Switzkill Farm.

After the Buddhists were forced to leave their home, we received two letters to the editor from members of the Switzkill Farm Board — unpaid volunteers — who wrote about how they felt their work was being disparaged by the current administration.

Vice Chairman Mark Hohengasser wrote that the board and friends group have never been political. “Since it’s purchase just over three years ago for the minimal price of about $112,000, it has been used by Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, for weddings, birthdays, yoga, anniversary parties, meetings, star parties, public festivals, radio-controlled car racing, and more.”

Richard J. Ronconi wrote about plans for using the farm with Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools for student projects and classes. “The potential to provide economic benefit to the town has only begun to be realized,” he also wrote.

As we puzzled over what possible motivation there would be for the town’s new building inspector to suddenly oust the two tenants, we were troubled to learn that, about 10 days before the eviction, the town’s Republican Party chairman who is also Berne’s highway superintendent, Randy Bashwinger; the town’s newly elected Republican supervisor, Sean Lyons; and the town town’s newly elected Republican councilman, recently named the deputy supervisor, Dennis Palow, visited Switzkill Farm and asked one of the tenants, Nelson Kent, for a key to the lodge.

Switzkill Farm has just two buildings, a lodge and the retreat house. Kent, a semi-retired engineer who acted as an informal overseer on the property, said he gave the GOP trio the keys to both buildings.

We see no reason that justifies a highway superintendent and two members of the town board — not acting in concert with other board members — getting keys to the property. The members of the town-appointed Switzkill Farm Board had no knowledge of the forced expulsion until after it happened, having learned of it not from the town but from the tenants who had been forced out.

A safety inspection — if that’s what this was — should be handled by the building inspector. Period.

It’s fine for elected officials to hold varying viewpoints. If, for example, the Republicans think that the town should sell Switzkill Farm, they should broach it at a meeting with other town board members. We sincerely hope the uncalled-for expulsion of valued tenants was not a ploy to move toward a sale.

That would be unconscionable. Further, we hope the uncalled-for ousting wasn’t a sign of discrimination. When Buddhists first bought the Switzkill Farm property and opened their center, we heard objections and bigoted comments from some unenlightened residents. One local pastor wrote in a letter to the editor, “The spiritual environment of our area, and more importantly, the destiny of our souls is at stake.”

As it is, a trust has been broken. While Kent says he likes Switzkill Farm enough to return after a trip to Texas, we got no reply when we reached out to Poole. We’ve heard from others that she is too upset to return to the place she loved.

It was her home. Her home should not have been ripped from her.

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